One of the South Africa’s highly respected virologists, Professor Wanda Markotter, has been selected to serve in a high-level panel of international experts aimed at curbing animal-to-humans that could set off future pandemics similar to Covid-19.
Markotter is the right fit for the position given her vast experience in viral zoonoses field. She is currently the director of the University of Pretoria (UP)’s Centre for Viral Zoonoses; DSI-NRF South African Research chair and has just recently been appointed Future Africa research chair.
In addition, Markotter has been involved in trans-disciplinary research on disease ecology in bat species in South Africa and other African countries since 2005. She will co-chair the expert panel with other equally qualified members such as Professor Thomas Mettenleiter of Germany’s Federal Institute for Animal Health.
Markotter, who beat off more than 700 international applicants, will form part of 26 experts who will provide science-based advice to the One Health High-Level Expert Panel (OHHLEP).
Maekotter’s area of speciality is on bats and potential spill-over hosts, virological testing, bat biology, ecological investigations and human behaviour studies. She stressed that even though Covid-19 pandemic has been widely linked to bats this remains unresolved.
“We really do not know at this stage. Though there is some evidence pointing to the presence of related viruses in bats, COVID-19 has not been detected in this species. So, this panel is not just about bats. It concerns the potential spill-over of all animal-borne diseases to humans but, more importantly, strongly focused on potential factors leading to spill-over,” said Markotter
The panel is a joint initiative by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the various United Nations’ agencies. They include the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE), the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to assess evidence and risk of the emergence of zoonoses (diseases that can spread between animals and humans), such as influenza, Ebola and COVID-19.
Said Markotter: The global “One Health” approach recognises the complex and multidisciplinary issues raised by the interface of human, animal and ecosystem health. She said: “Environmental health has not always been properly represented in the global One Health initiative, so the inclusion of the UN Environment Programme in this new panel is extremely important.”
De Jager said Markotter’s appointment to the global OHHLEP will certainly encourage engagement within UP, between institutions, and across geographical borders, advancing a trans-disciplinary approach toward common challenges.
“Her achievement speaks to the faculty’s focus with regards to conducting trans-disciplinary research aligned to the SDGs by leveraging on the central, urban and rural research platforms and will advance capacity building,” de Jager.
Markotter said she and the panel will hit the ground running, adding they have already identified specific aims at the first meeting this month. She said they would start with systematic analyses of scientific knowledge about disease transmission, risk assessment and surveillance approaches. A key output was identifying gaps and good practices to prevent and prepare for future zoonotic outbreaks.
The environment (ecosystem) health) is another key consideration as well as food production and land use changes. The panel will also develop a dynamic new research agenda and draw up evidence-based recommendations for global, regional, national and local action, said Markotter.